An apology to Victoria Brookhart & why new Ph.D’s think they are smarter than God

I owe Victoria Brookhart an apology. One day, we were in the graduate student lounge discussing research methods and she burst out,

“Isn’t this great? Here we are warming ourselves at the fires of knowledge. These are the times we’ll remember our whole lives as the good old days.”

The rest of us threw spitballs at her, I think. We were too cool and cynical to think like that, or, if we did, to say it out loud. On top of which, Vicky was one of the very few in the group to pursue qualitative research, or as, us quantitative types referred to it, creative writing.

It might have been me that wrote on the white board outside her office,

“Victoria’s sex life is participant observation.”

Actually, I think it was Dio, but it might have been me. Of course, a few years later, when I was working in North Dakota and doing research on Native Americans with developmental disabilities, I had to call up and grovel and ask for her advice on how to get started in an area where there was NO published literature. That’s not why I owe her an apology, though,

Vick was right. If you are fortunate like we were, and like so few people are any more, that you can devote full time to learning, that is an incredible blessing. Yes, we felt more broke than blessed at the time, plus there is that whole thing about being a professor’s slave, or at least indentured servant. And yet ….

We had the opportunity to delve into subjects that interested us, to read books about them, collect data, analyze data, formulate theories, test them, swear, talk things out with people who had whopping years more experience than us who could steer us in a better direction, be mentored, read the latest articles, hang out at the computing center until 10 p.m. when maybe we could talk somebody into loading OUR tapes on the tape drives since no one else would be there until morning and running OUR data right now so we could get the results and …

I don’t know if I was smarter back then but I sure THOUGHT I was smarter. It made me smile several years later when the department chair showed me his evaluation of a new member of our department which began,

“Like most new Ph.D.’s, X thinks he is smarter than God, but we expect he’ll get over it …”

I have heard a lot of comments like that over the years. I remember when the dean of a state college came to campus recruiting. Someone (it could have been me) asked him how many articles he had published in the 20 years he had been there. He said he hadn’t published any but he had received over $30 million in grants and he was proud of that. After he left, my friends and I discussed with a superior attitude how WE were not impressed because WE already each had a couple of articles in press. WE obviously were so much smarter than him.

Fast-forward twenty-five years and Victoria was right. One of the reasons that dean didn’t publish is it takes an enormous amount of work to write a grant and then to administer it. I’m sure that grant money funded a lot of graduate students over the years and a lot of demonstration and service programs. He was right to be proud of it.

I think of that gentleman from time to time when I make a mistake and ask myself how I could have been so stupid or careless. Well, really, I’m not particularly stupid or careless but what I am is pulled in many directions. Some things, whether it is serving on departmental search committees or putting together a justification for a major software purchase or analyzing data on the number of students applying so we can project the need for courses – they just have to be done.

Several years ago, when I was doing a lot more grants management, I know some of my students secretly classified me as one of those old professors who understood statistics but had to have other people write programs for them.

I’m very happy that I get a chance to do more programming these days. Now that three of my children are grown, I can afford to choose to do more of the work I want to do, a luxury I haven’t had as much since graduate school.

I listen to doctoral students talk about how behind the times and overrated their professors are, with that attitude of superiority I remember we all had. Now I laugh at it realizing that part of the reason that our professors weren’t up to our standards of research productivity and error-free equations and code is that they had other shit to do. Sad, but true.

Every decade or so, I step back and work in an academic setting, and it is always amazing to me the new developments, new statistics, new software, that I haven’t had time to learn, and it takes me a year or two to catch up.

Coming from a business into academia, I’m not nearly as convinced of the greater practical benefit of some of these. We often give ourselves far too much credit in the universities. I hear my colleagues say,
“This article is in an academic journal but eventually it gets used by the people in the field.”

And I think to myself,
“No, usually, it doesn’t.”

It never occurred to me at the time, but now I wonder what that dean thought of us. I am guessing he was partly wistful and partly amused. Probably like most people in the field, I remember the first computer program I ever wrote, back in 1975, in BASIC. It was a program to create poems, as a basis it started with one by Ogden Nash,

“Behold the hippopotamus
We laugh at how he looks to us
And yet in moments dark and grim
I wonder how we look to him
Peace, peace, oh hippopotamus
We really look all right to us
As you no doubt delight the eye
Of other hippopotami”

Here’s to you, Victoria. You were right all along.

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